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Keeping the webinar business aloft

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Webinars—seminars distributed over the Internet—continue to gain altitude in b-to-b media, even though the air space has gotten a lot more congested over the past five years. 

"They still have a lot of runway," said Jason Young, president of Ziff Davis Media's Consumer/Small Business Group. "Our e-seminar business in the first six months was up 47%. People are registering; people are attending."

Three primary factors are driving the growth of webinars, or webcasts, as they're also known.

First, the broadcasting of presentations over the Internet is just catching on in the bulk of the industry segments covered by b-to-b media. The exception is the technology space, where webinars have been much more pervasive.

Second, the companies with maturing webcasting businesses are developing new products to maintain the growth of this now-critical component of their advertising revenue.

Third, as webinars proliferate, media companies must differentiate among them. So, in addition to expanding their webcasting offerings, publishers are relying on their core strength of editorial knowledge to improve the quality of their presentations.

Growth challenges

The allure of webinars for marketers has been the promise of sales leads, although there has been some debate over whether lists of names and e-mail addresses of webinar attendees should be called leads.

"Some people are trying to pitch the volume of registrations as a metric," said Prescott Shibles, VP-online development/new media at Prism Business Media. "There's a lot more to lead generation, including lead scoring, routing those leads, getting feedback on the closing rates and so forth."

Eric Shanfelt, Penton Media's senior VP-eMedia strategy and development, said: "Webcasts are good for generating prospects, but there is a lot more to lead generation. Ultimately, the b-to-b sales cycle is not an impulse buy. It's based on the long-term establishment of a relationship."

Shanfelt admitted, however, that this argument is often lost on customers that are driven to justify their advertising spending with some type of metrics. "Marketers love leads," he said.

"Webinars have been a high-growth area for us, but they have been challenging as well," said Jeff DeBalko, chief Internet officer for Reed Business Information and head of the new Reed Business Interactive unit. "We want to grow lead gen products such as webinars but, so far, we've been doing them in an inconsistent way."

This problem has become more serious lately because "advertisers are getting more demanding about metrics," he said. That was one of the primary reasons behind the creation of Reed Business Interactive. By centralizing most of the Internet operations of Reed Business' U.S. b-to-b media division, DeBalko and his team hope to standardize the measurement of online programs for advertisers, clarify best practices for webinar sponsors and improve the quality of webcast offerings overall.

New marketplaces

While webcasts are a maturing business for the publishers in the IT space that pioneered them, they are just beginning to penetrate the bulk of the industry classifications covered by b-to-b media.

At Cygnus Business Media, for example, incremental growth in webinars this year is coming from new markets. "We'll go to 15 [markets] in 2006, from 10 last year," said Dave Iannone, VP-publishing, interactive. The company this year is boosting its number of webinars to about 60, up from about 40 last year.

PennWell Corp. will run "significantly over 100 webcasts this year, up from about 80 last year," said Tom Cintorino, senior VP-digital media. "Some of the industries we cover are more mature and some are just getting into it, such as energy and fire/EMS," he said.

Pockets of growth for webinars also can be found within a single business sector. At ALM's Law.com, for example, "legal technology companies were the early adopters," said Jennifer Collins, managing director of Law.com. "Now, law firms are playing a greater role. We have the availability for one, hourlong Web seminar per month, and they're all sold out for this year. With this kind of incredible sell-through, I could see us having 25% growth in 2007."

Attracting audiences

Yet as webcasts proliferate in an expanding number of industries, b-to-b publishers must do more to attract and hold their audiences, according to media executives.

"It's increasingly challenging to get people to attend," said Dennis Shiao, director of product management, webcasts, at TechTarget. "Now, you have to use a lot more promotional inventory or get more creative."

One way for publishers to hold on to audiences is to include more of the ingredient that built their brands in the first place—editorial expertise.

"The church and state lines have been crossed in some egregious ways," Shibles said. "One of the things we're trying to do here is to create some standards. We want to present advertisers with options that are clear."

The three types of webinars Prism is now presenting, Shibles said, include purely editorial ones, with sponsors having no say regarding the content, and purely advertorial ones, with sponsors in charge of content. "Then there's a custom-publishing model, where the editor is involved as an industry expert but the advertiser is controlling the content," Shibles said. "This hybrid model is a more recent offering for us, and we haven't gone into it full-tilt yet."

"Church and state issues are very important," agreed Reed's DeBalko. "The biggest opportunity for us, I believe, is to drive quality, and we expect a lot of growth in purely editorial webinars."

Maurice Bakely, director of online advertising and business development at PostNewsweek TechMedia said: "Until this year, our e-seminars were exclusively vendor-driven. We expanded our offerings with an editorial model this year, and we'll do more of that next year."

In the government market PNTM serves with titles such as Government Computer News, the status of speakers willing to participate in a webcast generated by editors is significantly higher than it would be for a commercial project, Bakely said. "We can get some very high-level government people," he said.

But how much more work can a relatively small editorial team handle? At PNTM, Bakely said, editors are helped by the fact that speaking is part of the job of many of these government officials. Also, PNTM has learned that "if we pick topics that warrant an e-seminar when the editorial calendar is being developed anyway, it's not that hard," he said.

There's a similar process at Prism. "We're no longer putting them out in a haphazard way," Shibles said. "There's a whole planning process that starts with the editorial calendar. There's an added benefit for the editors because they can use the webinar content as a cover story, for example."

Peter Spande, former director of the CNET Networks Business portfolio and newly named VP-online media for CMP Technology's Business Technology Group, noted a trend toward better editorial quality in vendor-driven webcasts as well. "Vendors in the b-to-b space are working much more diligently to make their content compelling by training their people to be better speakers and bringing in third-party presenters," he said. "A lot more planning is going into it on their side.

"Another related angle—and I'm not sure if it's a trend—is that some sponsors are beginning to catch on to the notion that a webinar is not just about lead-gen; it's about thought leadership."

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